Malaysia Before Malaysia: A Labour History of Malaya

Missed our first lecture for the year 2018? Read on for a quick recap:

The significance of Malaysian trade unions in the shaping of our history is seldom discussed. From its origins in the 1920s as scattered General Labour Unions to the height of its influence under the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions in the 1940s, the role played by labour movements in our independence struggle and their subsequent suppression has largely been erased from mainstream narratives of Malaysian history. 

This installment of the Malaysia Before Malaysia series discussed the history of the Malaysian workers, their organisations and their role in Malaysian history. Speaking on this subject was Professor Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Saminathan Munisamy. The session was moderated by our coordinator, Netusha Naidu. 

The struggle of Indian workers in colonial Malaya

Saminathan Munisamy, an independent researcher has dedicated much time and effort to collect newspaper cuttings, photographs, letters and other archives to document the history of the Indian working-class in former British Malaya.  He shares his findings on a website known as Malaya Ganapathy 

“This is a story that has been left out from our school textbooks”, Saminathan said in the opening of his presentation. 

He explained that his research attempts to narrate the making of Malaysia from the perspective of Indian labourers. It tries to see them as human being rather than factors of production. This can be told through the instances of which these workers politically organized themselves to demand for their human rights. 

For example, the Kajang Strike in 1941 demonstrated the class antagonisms that were evident between the kangani  chiefs and workers. Although the protestors learnt that a pacifist approach would help them achieve their means, British governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Thomas did not hesitate to use force in dispersing the strikes. As a result, journalist and strike leader RH Nathan was deported upon his arrest, along with 300 other demonstrators detained.

Neither labour wages nor other demands were realized after the strikes. However, what was pointed out by Saminathan was the colonizer’s perception of worker rights movements to be an inhibitor to the war effort during the Malayan Emergency. He illustrated this through the documentation of RH Nathan’s deportation to be politically motivated, as he was accused for being an instigator that would undermine the fight against communism in Malaya. There were even pressure groups for an inquiry into the violence that entailed in the Klang Strikes of 1941. However, the investigation was never concluded due to the war. 

Saminathan also emphasized that it is important to take note that not all workers’ strikes were organized by the Malayan Communist Party, and this is seen in the 1941 Klang Strikes. The party had previously been more isolationist in its approach and were mostly active in Singapore. This distinction made by him allows for the ability to grant the workers of Malaya a certain degree of agency in advancing their fundamental liberties.

The complexities of narrating labour history

Following this Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former Tun Hussein Onn Chair in the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) and former Assistant Director General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations since 2012, began his speech by posing a question to the audience, that being – what does it mean to talk about labour history in Malaysia? 

Jomo argued that a distinction which might be useful in discussing Malaysia’s labour history is whether what was being talked about is “a class by itself or for itself”? He illustrates this by characterizing the act of working and how labour, as a socio-economic entity, has always existed ever since the beginning of human society being organized. However, as modernity progresses, the meaning of labour became oriented towards wages, erasing any discussion about slavery or indentured workers. Labour as commonly understood in the present is now referred to as ‘free labour’. 

By bringing this up, Jomo tried to compare and contrast the past and the present, examining the differences in ethnic breakdown of Malaysia’s labour class. While Saminathan focused on the plight of Indian workers in Malaya, Jomo reinforced the impact of colonial capitalism in the stratification of the labour class along racial lines. 

He brought up about the dominance of associating the Chinese community with wage labour has long historical ties as well since in the 19th century, many of them worked in the tin mines. Many Chinese labourers left mainland China in search of livelihood as it was in this period that the country was plagued with famine and political turmoil. Jomo highlighted that tin and rubber were fundamental to the making of modern Malaya and the preservation of British colonial rule. Class antagonisms were also rife between Chinese secret societies and the Malay rulers, as seen in Larut Valley.

Keeping this in mind, Jomo showed that it is significant to compare the way in which Indian labour was organized in comparison to the Chinese. As a result, it informs of how the use of force to create an indentured labour class was necessary to British domination because Chinese arrangements were fairly autonomous and had greater bargaining power, coupled with the influence of the secret societies. Indenture became the main mode of control for the labour class in Malaya. He touched quickly on how this is made further complicated by the different demands and experiences of ethnic groups that are not frequently touched on, such as the Javanese community.

On the other hand, when thinking about labour as a class for itself, Jomo said this would only appear more apparent in the mid-19th century due to the rise of left-wing, socialist movements. It was a time when the Communist Manifesto was written, and the later the creation of a working class movement that would be splintered into various ideological factions. In demonstrating how this phenomenon was also in Southeast Asia, Jomo mentioned the revolutionary leadership of figures like Tan Malaka, Sutan Syahrir, Ho Chi Minh, SA Ganapathy and others. To Jomo, this makes it clear that the struggle for workers’ rights was not exclusive to communist parties as often told by official history.

In the case of Malaya, Jomo told that the political mobilisation of workers were made possible by organizations like the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) and the Central Indian Association of Malaya (CIAM). However, all this came to a tragic end with the introduction of the Trade Union Ordinance in 1940 and preceding amendments.

Jomo elaborated on how these historical accounts serve as a reminder to locate domestic political developments within the broader changes in the international sphere. The labour class in Malaya was most definitely subjected to this as well. For example, during the Japanese Occupation during World War 2 witnessed the exploitation and manipulation of Malayan workers. Particularly, their recruitment into the Indian National Army (INA), a collaborator with the Nippon Army, resulted in torture at the infamous Death Railway. 

“The history of power is cruel […] The rebuilding of the British empire was done on the backs of working people”, said Jomo. 

The only way such an aspiration could be fulfilled would be through the repression of the labour class. As seen through these elucidations, it can be seen that the forceful measures by the British colonialists to suppress left leaning movements like Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) and trade unions were due to the perception that the political organization of Malaya’s working class would be a major threat to their political and economic interests.

Rewriting labour history for Malaysia today

In the Q&A session, the questions posed by the audience focused on the relevance and purpose of revising labour history in contemporary Malaysia. Both Jomo and Saminathan shared concerns for the treatment of undocumented foreign workers, working-class women and other discriminated communities who are not being represented politically and are persistently marginalized. Both speakers concluded by reinforcing the importance of efforts to revise Malaysian history to be more inclusive about the participation of the working-class in advancing the fundamental liberties many believe in, as it will inform the present generation about the oppression faced by Malaysia’s labourers today.

*Special thanks to a member of our audience, Ong Li Ling for volunteering as a rapporteur for this forum.

Photographs © Kalash Nanda Kumar


The Mysterious Ali of the ‘Malay Archipelago’

Tom McLaughlin holds a Masters in Political Science and International Affairs and currently resides in Sarawak. Together with his wife, Suriani binti Sahari, they conducted an oral history and archival investigation of the enigmatic persona “Ali” in the classic text on Borneo’s natural history, Malay Archipelago by Alfred Wallace. This essay explores the oral history of Ali through a Kuching Bomoh, traces the verbal history through living relatives, examines the work of the American Dr. Thomas Barbor and provides additional evidence with a pantun. It concludes the Ali was from Sarawak and returned here after his journeys with Alfred Wallace.This is an abridge version of their findings and more can be discovered on his website,

In the Malay Archipelago, Alfred Wallace describes a relationship between him and a boy named Ali. Several Western  writers have attempted to explain where he came from and what happened to him. Piecing together both oral history and scholarly sources, my wife and I have finally found the answer to this quest. Through a seven year search and a dukun named Sapian bin Morani, the following narrative, translated from the Sarawak Malay, explains where Ali came from and what happened to him.

Sapian bin Morni is a dukun. In the Sarawak Malay world, a dukun uses herbs to treat disease. He uses  fragrance oils to help those who have marriage problem and  to make the couple fall in love again. Sapian bin Morni can also use verses from the Koran to treat people. He has travelled widely throughout Borneo, the south Philippines and west Malaysia to acquire more knowledge. Sapian acquired this knowledge from his father and grandfather who were both dukuns and probably further back. He also acquired the historical knowledge from a lineage that spans several generations.  His knowledge has been translated from the Sarawak Malay to English by Suriani binti Sahari.

Ali bin Amit

Ali, Wallace’s invaluable employee and friend.

The South China Sea washed the fishing village of Kampung Jaie about two hours northeast from Kuching. Most of the houses were probably on stilts to allow the waste to wash away. Ali bin Amit was born around 1840. He was not alone. He was the youngest of his siblings, Chek, Osman, Tad and Lon. While growing up, he learned about jungle medicine from his brother Tad (Panglima Putad) then they went to Kuching to work for the Rajah, Mr. James Brooke. Ali soon followed a as young teen lad. He worked under the tutelage of his brother Osman soon to be known as Panglima Seman. The title of Panglima was usually earned in battle as leader of soldiers.

Panglima Putad had learned medical skills from his father and Ali assisted in treating the wounded.  In his book, Ten Years in Sarawak volume 1, Charles Brooke describers the Malays as “the worst kind” except for Panglima Seman and Abang Ali. Later he tells of “good Panglima Seman”.Finally, he informs that he kept a small force back to guard the stockade under Panglima Seman. Ali probably followed his brother through battle, helping to bandage wounds and cooking for the troops.

Following the raids, Ali knew that his fortunes lay with the white people who came to rule Sarawak. He befriended a person named “Edward” to learn the English language. According to the Rajahs letters, Edward was the groom, a person who took care of horses. Ali was no stranger around the Astanna where he learned English from Edward.

The skirmishes ended and  Panglima Seman was granted a tract of land in 1852 from the Rajah for services to him. The land still bears his name.  The first year, Ali did not live in the kampung. Only Panglima Putad, (Tad) one of the brothers,  worked with Seman. He opened a prosperous blacksmith operation and people came in to fill up the kampung. However, a person named Awang Mat (Pengiran Ahmad) became jealous of Seman’s success and started to spread rumours to the Rajah about Panglima Seman. He stated that Seman was plotting to overthrow the Rajah and to make himself  the head of government. The Rajah believed in the plot because Panglima Seman’s family members were there and able to forge arms from the blacksmith shop. He could also produce weapons to fight the Rajah. The Panglima went to see Brooke eight times but Brooke refused to meet with him. A few months after that, Brooke went to Singapore. While he was there, rumours spread that Brooke was forming an army to attack the Panglima Seman.

When Brooke returned from Singapore, the ship passed the kampung. It was three days after his return, he planned to meet with Brooke but he was not allowed to see him. They sent someone to tell Brooke that Panglima wanted to meet him. He was not permitted to enter the Astanna.  Rumors spread again that Brooke want to attack Panglima Seman and his followers. A few weeks later a large ship docked at the mouth of Sarawak River. The debates became heated between the Rajah and the Panglima, and in a fit of temper, The Rajah threatened him and his family. Upon seeing  the ship, they assumed the rumors were true and fled to Kampung Jaie. He packed everything out. His residence  and the land is called Mungguk puang (Sarawak Malay for an empty place.) The Panglima, along with Ali, evacuated his family to Kampung Jaie. He changed the names of his children to Chinese and white men names because he took the threats seriously. Bibi, Tang, Chong, Ben and Mu are their names. It was not true that the Rajah wanted to attack the Panglima’s family. Panglima Seman  disappears from history and it is thought he fled to Sambas. Ali arranged people to take care of the children and returned to Kuching where he met Alfred Wallace. Ali used his skills a speaker of English, his ability as cook and his knowledge of jungle medicine to gain a place in Wallace’s entourage. He actively solicited the position. In his first conversation with Wallace he told him of the herbs but he had not been hired.  He got to know Wallace and thought he was close friends with the royal family in England. He remained with Wallace, off and on, for six years. During his off  time with Wallace he returned to Kampung Jaie  to check on Seman’s children. His exploits have been dissected elsewhere and are  described in Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago.

The Pantun

Most pantuns written during the 1860’s and 1870’s were composed by people who could neither read nor write. They relied on sounds and memory to pass the pantun from one generation to the next. The following pantun is written in Sarawak Malay as they were heard from the people of Kampung Jaie.

pantun has four lines with an abab rhyming scheme. This means the first line rhymes with the third line while the second rhymes with the fourth. Each line has between eight and twelve syllables. The first two lines usually have no relation to the second two. They are often performed at weddings and other kampung celebrations. Each kampung has its’ own pantun unique to that individual setting.  An old pantun in Sarawak Malay from Kampung Jaie relates:

Apa kaba Weles serani

Abang Ali duak sekawan

Apa daya setuan ini

Berpecah kongsi berputus seratan

The first line Apa kaba Weles serani

Apa kaba means how are you; Weles is Wallace; serani is Sarawak Malay for white man.

Abang Ali duak sekawan

Wallace (from the top line) and Abang Ali  are good friends

Apa daya setaun ini

Unfortunately, this year

Berpecah kongsi berputus seratan

Our cooperation and team work has ended. Berpecah kongsi in Sarawak Malay means to break up. Berputus seratan means  the end of a relationship. The last  line in Sarawak Malay mean the breakup of a relationship who will not see each other for a long time. All four lines refer to the relationship between Wallace and Ali. (This pantun is translated from the old Sarawak Malay by Suriani binti Sahari)

This pantun tells the story of Wallace and Ali and confirms Ali came from Kuching and Kampong Jaie.


thomas barbour
Dr Thomas Barbour

A young western author by the name of Thomas Barbour said he met Ali in 1908 while on a trip.  When we visited Ternate,  our driver took us to the home of a lady, Mbk Iss, who, he said, went into a trance could tell the things about the past. I was expecting an old woman but a motorbike drove up and a beautiful girl of about 27 years old drove up. She put on a tudong and started her incantations. In an elderly persons voice and seemingly in a trance, she told the driver to quit having an affair with a local lady. She told us about Ali Wallace and said he was buried in a plot about a two hour boat ride from Ternate. When she came out of the trance we thanked her very much. The next day she rode with us around the island showing us the intensely beautiful sights of the island.

We were not going to take a two hour boat ride looking for Ali. However, we did visit a graveyard and people collecting fallen flowers for the perfume trade told us that a white man and two Malays from Java had said Ali Wallace grave was close by. We visited the site and noticed new cement and blue paint around the grave. This was all the information we had. We asked around the Malay community and nobody had heard of Ali, the new cement or the blue paint..

The Kampungs

Our adventures in the search for Ali Wallace turned to the kampungs on the Sarawak River. We interviewed hundreds of people, off and on, over a seven year in our search. We combed kampungs from Tupong to Panglima Seman .We gave up our search for Ali  He was not to be found.

It was at Kampung Hilir Batu  that we  interviewed   Sapian bin Morni  for a paper iI was writing which was totally unrelated to Ali. This was about three month later. We were about to leave, and as an afterthought, I asked about Ali. The  narrative flowed forth. I didn’t believe it until he came to the pantun. Then, I was almost convinced.

I told him we were going to Kampung Jaie. He said he couldn’t make until mid September (this was early August, 2016) I I told him we were going anyway and would meet Ali’s relatives. He came with us. A two hour drive and a winding road towards the sea took us to the Kampung. There lived the relatives of Panglima Seman .The man who sang the pantun for us was Jompot bin Chong the son of Chong whose father was Panglima Osman. (Seman). We interviewed several of the relatives, noticed the physical similarities and came away convinced this was indeed the home of Ali, the boy who accompanied Alfred Wallace through the Archipelago.

Ali’s grave at Kampung Jaie.

Ali’s grave is located at the centre of the grave yard. One must walk through high grass  and traverse soggy ground before one comes to the non descript wooden head and foot stone. The aged timbers are spread around as if a flood had lifted and resettled them, which, indeed it had before the building of a huge berm between the sea and the land. Ali’s 20 post house is gone, reclaimed by the South China Sea on the seaside side of the berm.

For footnotes and citations, the author can be emailed at


Collective Amnesia: The Japanese Occupation of the Phillipines

Stephanie Ann B. Lopez, a student of Psychology at University of the Phillipines Dilliman writes a short story about the horrors of the Japanese Occupation in the Phillipines during the Second World War. Her descriptions are based on documentaries and narratives about this particular period of the country’s history.

It was like any other afternoon. I was sitting on my rocking chair, staring at the drying laundry that draped our balcony. I almost fell asleep, but then I heard my granddaughter’s hurried footsteps and the clatter of her suitcase. As she headed towards me, she started slurring the lyrics of her song. I snorted in disgust and she finally stopped singing.

I told her my story so she knew how I can’t bear to hear the sound of those words. She knew perfectly well how much I hate those people, their putrid language, and how everything about them disgusts me.  She knew that I’d rather die than forgive them. Who can blame me? Seven long decades have passed and yet I’m still haunted by that memory.

I was nine years old when it happened. The air was humid and the sun was nearly setting. I was fetching water from a well just a few yards from our house when I heard the first blast. At that very moment, I abandoned my half-filled bucket and I quickly ran back to our house. When I entered the hut, I saw my mother carrying my five-month-old brother in one arm and a bag of clothes on the other. My older sister dragged me by the arms and yelled, “Hurry! Hurry! They’re coming!” When we left the house, we saw that the village was already surrounded by the troops. The smell of gunpowder dominated the air. Our neighbors were running for their lives, crying hysterically and pleading for mercy. Many of the houses were set to flames; we were lucky to get out before ours was burned.

“Daraga! Daraga!” [Girl! Girl!] somebody from behind said in a shrill and excited voice.   My sister lost her grip on my arm. Somebody grabbed her and pointed his bayonet at her breasts. I was terrified so I ran as fast as I could away from them. I was lucky enough to spot a hole in the ground where I covered myself with mud and hid the rest of my body under fallen leaves.

The soldier demanded my sister to dance or else the bayonet will cut through her chest. She didn’t. She struggled to break away but he slapped her several times until she lost consciousness. I saw how my father tried to save her but another soldier pointed his sword at him and yelled, “Ikaw Pilipino loko! Ikaw pugot ulo!”  [You stupid Filipino! Off with your head!] They tied his hands and forced him down. I couldn’t bear to see it happen so I averted my gaze. I looked to my right and saw my mother kneeling before a soldier. He was holding my brother by the neck. The soldier tossed the baby in the air and bayoneted him as he fell. He hurled my lifeless brother like a dead rodent and then laughed at my mother’s pain. The soldier aimed his bayonet at my mother, and the next thing I know, she was thrown in the well along with the other women. They incessantly fired their machine guns at them. I wanted to cry so badly but the faintest sound would endanger my life. I shut my eyes and waited for it all to end.

What’s more disturbing than the blood-soaked ground, the pile of chopped and beheaded bodies, and the cries of those who were buried alive?

Well, it’s as though nothing but petty crimes had happened. Only a few years after the Whites won the war, the prisoners were freed and the collaborators were given amnesty. The offenders had shown no sign of remorse; no official apology was given.  They have forgotten the ruthless crimes, the massive destruction, and the countless deaths. Everything was erased from history.

And now, my granddaughter will be flying off to the land where those soulless demons thrive. She has to give them entertainment, to sing and dance for them; their money will keep us alive. I begged her not to go, but she didn’t listen.  I want to cry so badly, but that won’t change anything. Like everyone else, she has forgotten my story.


The Hybridity of Malay Islam (1500-1800) Part 2: An Entanglement of ‘Adat’ and Politics

This is a two-part essay on the complex history of Islam in the Malay World by Lhavanya Dharmalingam, a student of International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. The first part of the essay outlines how the process of Islamisation took place in the region due to the openness of Malay cultural life which allowed for easy assimilation of Islamic practices and values. It also touches on the significance of Sufism, a form of Islam which was spread across the Malay world. In the second of the her essay, Lhavanya takes a look at the manifestations of Malay-Islam in modern politics, governance and social life.

Islam as a Political Tool

Legitimacy is seen in the people’s support of the King and this was a gradual process, the effect of persuasion rather than force (Marsden, 1812, xxxiv). And scholars opine that they were a dominant force in leading Islamisation (Milner, 2008, p.40) building upon a similar process that had occurred centuries earlier with Hindu-Buddhism. Once Islam became the preferred basis for rulers it was relatively straightforward and easy for their subjects to convert with the sanction and support of their leaders. The Melaka-Johor chronicle, narrates the decree the newly converted ruler of Melaka gives his people “whether of high or low degree” to convert (Milner, 2008, p.65).

Islam reinforces the concept of daulat, which in the Malay world refers to the mystical powers of rulership, by imparting to the ruler divine sanction to establish God’s ordained rule (Means, 2009, p.21). The ruler would be considered the head of the Ummah and at the apex of the system of moral authority. In the 17th century, the Sultan Agung of Mataram sought legitimacy by Islamicising local traditions and Javanising Islam, by marrying Ratu Kidul, a Goddess of indigenous Javanese tradition while also inaugurating the hybrid Saka calendrical system with the Islamic hijri calendar (Feener, 2011, p.479). Yet others sought to serve political agenda with appeals made to piety to reinforce legitimacy. In Mataram in the early 18th century, Ratu Pakubuwana, the grandmother of Pakubuwana II sponsored a series of pious Islamic works which praised her piety such as the Carita Sultan Iskandar which claims authentication as a text from exegesis of the Quran. Her following texts Carita Nabi Yusuf and Kitab Usulbiyah do the same (Feener, 2011).

Sultan La Maddaremmeng, the ruler of Bone during the 17th century, put in place a new rule appealing to the sharia to prohibit practices such as the third gender bissu priesthood and to emancipate slaves (Feener, 2011, p.482). Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa from Banten encouraged Islamic values such as the prohibition of opium and the adoption of popular perceptions of Arab forms of dress (ibid). Sultan Pakubuwana II from Mataram banned all forms of gambling except cock fighting in 1731. By adopting selective aspects of Islam, the claims to the religion could be made which would also be of benefit as it increased access to trading networks as seen in Melaka which established a system of favoured treatment for Muslims both involving trade agreements and payment of transit duties (Means, 2009, p.21). However in many cases rulers were selective in their implementation of Islam for fear of losing the popular support of the locals or engendering dissent over the abolishment of some of their practices. Arguably however, the selective adoption of aspects of Islamic principles, in some of these contexts, could be viewed in the reflection of the Quranic revelations on alcohol. There was a series of three revelations over time (2:219, 4:43 and 5:90-91) progressively dissuading the use of alcohol to finally outright prohibiting it because it was the best means to achieving this, perceived, moral outcome. Therefore this selective application, at least within the timeframe of a ruler’s reign could be a means to an end.

Whether rulers managed to successfully harness the support of the people through this means was not guaranteed however. Pakubuwana’s grandmother and himself did not manage to successfully cement themselves in their people’s good opinion (Feener, 2011). This could be because these rulers were not successful in convincing their people that they were truly pious Muslims as there was a cleavage between the ideal pattern of behaviour and their praxis. This can be seen in 1660 when Shaykh Yusuf unsuccessfully attempted to persuade rulers to impose Islamic principles like prohibiting gambling, cock fighting, arrack drinking and other habits that were frowned upon by Islam (Reid, 2011, p.456). In addition, in many situations Islamic teachings discriminated against female rulers therefore the case for the legitimising capabilities of Islam being a dominant factor in the Islamisation of the Malay world does not stand, although it does qualify as a significant factor. As Ricklefs (1997, p.252) comments on Java, the Islamic elite were something of an anomaly, with other Javanese courts seemingly indifferent to Islamic piety at best and its enemy at worst and between the two cultural streams, the Javanese one is dominant in court affairs between the period of the 17th century til 20th century.

At another level, there is reason for the conflict between ‘original’ Islam and ‘Malay’ Islam because as seen in many instances, the adoption of Islam by rulers was done for purely political rather than pious reasons. The somewhat piecemeal adoption of Islamic ideas and practices was a calculated approach to make claims to piety while still appealing to popularity and could very much be considered a syncretism and possibly not even Islamic. As an example of what could be perceived as a systemwide failure of Islam in the Malay world lies in its supposed egalitarian nature, removing the ascriptive social status of birth and caste and making all members of the Ummah socially equal, in praxis however the systems of patron-client linkages and hierarchical social systems were still maintained to a large extent across the Malay world with Islamic festivals such as Eid serving as opportunities to reinforce these relationships (Means, 2009, p.25).

Islam and Adat

The verdict on whether Islam and adat were conflicting or complementary has still yet to be made but we can assume there was some conflict but the differences were negotiated and an effective compromise reached and maintained in the 17th and 18th centuries. The example of Minangkabau as given by Abdullah (1966) will be used to illustrate the synthesis between adat and Islam.

In the late 17th century, records talk about the first religious teacher Sjech Burhanuddin in the region, from the town of Ulakan in 1704. He had been instrumental in setting up the first religious school (madrasah) from which later on many others grew out of. At the early stages of the Islamisation process, Sufi missionaries were more concerned with individual morality over the religious correctness of a person’s actions and also with the more pressing issue of the “re-structuralisation of adat in order to interpret the heterogenetic change as orthogenetic.” (Marsden, 1783, p.343). It must be noted that the Minangkabau attitude toward adat is one that recognises the imperative continuity of the system while also acknowledging the importance of change. Therefore the hybridisation of adat and Islam was a long drawn, subtle process. There are four classes of adat and the first, adaik nan sabana adaik (adat which is truly adat) is considered to be eternal, since it is also identical with natural law and it was to this, during the process of codification (which happened only after the Arabic script was adapted in the region) that a new category of supernatural law was added to contain and insert the Quran and the hadiths and these were collectively perceived as eternal principles that guide human spiritual and secular activities.

Abdullah posits that over the two centuries, the madrasahs grew in size and influence posing a threat to the royalty as a symbol of tradition as well as because the madrasahs also practised patrilineal inheritance of their leadership just like the royalty. The commoners on the other hand practised matrilineal inheritance. The influence and power of the royalty waned because of these madrasahs although there was no direct conflict and no direct impact on society till the end of the 18th century (p.13). At the turn of the 19th century adat is changed far more significantly and arguably, even hijacked and its original elements downgraded by the incoming Padri movement led by the “three hajis” who were influenced by the initial success of the Wahabi movement in Arabia (p.18).


Undoubtedly, in many parts of the Malay world and across the centuries, ‘Malay’ Islam was a syncretic rather than a creole synthesis, with many contradictions that would warrant the criticism of Muslims practicing ‘original’ Islam. Many of its amalgamations with the Hindu-Buddhist culture was deliberately done to serve a political agenda, either to reinforce legitimacy or to convince locals to convert to Islam. The nature of Sufism was particularly effective Islamising the Malay world because it permitted the fusing of Islam and Hindu-Buddhism. Arguably without that openess, the Malay world might not have taken Islam so successfully. This then paved the way for more rigid formulations of Islam to take hold in the Malay world after the 18th century.

The political machinations behind the adoption of Islam was also key in getting large numbers of Malays to declare themselves Muslims even if they did not follow all its principles. And it could be argued that not all of these machinations were purely political as many of these rulers could have truly believed in Islam, but simultaneously were aware of the reality that their people may not have welcomed the religion if it had been too restrictive. Therefore while ‘original’ Islam was valid in some of its criticisms of Islam, it is also unrealistic to expect a rigid fixed form of Islam to develop identical to it, especially when Islam itself is diverse and varied. The moral judgement passed on such a syncretic but rich creation is unwarranted. The diversity enriches the scholarship of Islam while also giving rise to conflicts that need to be dealt with rationally as do all conflicts of belief systems whether religious or otherwise.


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The Hybridity of Malay Islam (1500-1800) Part I: Islamisation and Sufism as Key Elements of Identity

The integration of Islam into the Malay world occurred as a constant flux over time and its formulation across the Malay world was neither consistent nor constant. The religion, especially the Sufi school of Islam had a tremendous impact within those four centuries, altering the social and political fabric of the Malay ruled areas of Southeast Asia while also resulting in new Islamic developments that impacted the other kingdoms and societies in the Indian ocean. This two-part essay by Lhavanya Dharmalingam, a student of International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, discusses that the ideals and doctrines of Middle Eastern formulations of Islam was not adopted as a totality, but were being modified with complex innovations that manifested in different legal systems, systems of governance, societal arrangements and practices in the Malay world.

For the purposes of this essay the term ‘original Islam’ shall be used to refer to the manifestation of the culture and principles of Islam as it was practised in the Middle East. The modifications were made for various reasons, such as to further legitimise a ruler’s claim to rulership, or to encourage local conversion through either a religious syncretism (Kitiarsa, 2005) that gave concessions to indigenous/ Hindu-Buddhist religious practices or through an organic process of creolisation. Essentially, Islam was built on the existing religious and cultural practices, and Hindu-Buddhist systems of governance. The localisation of this religion manifests in the politics of trade, of governance, of society. The emergence of this new entity of ‘Malay Islam’ is significant because of its significant impact and role in the Malay political systems and its conflict with ‘original Islam’ because of the perceived syncretism. This essay will therefore aim to analyse the roles of Sufism and political facotrs in the localisation of Islam and the ideological conflict between ‘original Islam’ and ‘Malay Islam’ between the fifteenth to eighteenth century.

A snapshot of Islamisation

Muslims have been present in the Malay world since the first centuries of Islamic history (Feener, 2011, p.471). In the thirteenth century, Muslim trade across the Indian Ocean increased significantly, forming social, economic and political connections with locals. The first Islamic port city was the Sultanate of Pasai in the 13th century and it is towards the end of this century that documents show significant numbers of conversions (ibid, p.470) alongside an increasing Arab diaspora. By the fifteenth century, the small communities of Muslim migrants were evolving into significant local Muslim communities through processes of trade, intermarriage, shared economic interests and political alliances.

Over the 15th and 16th century the north coast of Java was developing a distinctive Islamic identity which subsequently spread east and west. Towards the late 16th century, Mataram rose as an agrarian Muslim kingdom (ibid, p.479). In the early 17th century, the Makassar and Bugis kings had converted to Islam while the major kings of South Sulawesi resisted because they feared it would decrease their supernatural status as well as interfere with their religious feasting on pork and palm wine (Reid, 2011, p.455). Upon conversion in 1605, Karaeng Matoaya proceeded to attack the Bugis states that resisted Islam and within a few years those states were won over (ibid, p.456). Under Sultan Iskandar Muda, Aceh became the leading regional centre of Islamic learning for that period and launched campaigns into neighbouring Gayo and Minangkabau (Feener, 2011, p.489). It was mainly during the 16th and the 17th century that the Malay world as a region became increasingly integrated with Islamic civilisational networks arising around the Indian ocean and developed increasingly self-conscious Islamic identities (ibid, p.488). Islamisation of the Malay world was a long drawn non-linear process.

Scholars frequently credit the traders and merchants and/or the Sufis for bringing Islam to the Malay world (Al-Attas, 1967; Johns, 1961). Morrison (1951) states that Arab, Persian and Indian traders, separately, brought Islam to this region and Alatas (1985) is convinced that there were non-Malay Muslims residing in the major ports of the Malay Archipelago as early as the ninth century. Drawing on textual evidence from that period he also stresses the significance of traders from the Hadhramaut region in the process of Islamisation. On the other hand, Arnold (1913) opines that while traders and settlements of Muslim merchants laid the political and social foundations for the regional embedding of Islam, it was the Sufis ‘using their superior intelligence and civilisation in the service of their religion’ who played the dominant role in spreading the faith as firm believers in it.

The Nature of Sufism

The nature of Sufism is a key factor in how these Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms managed to embrace Islam. In fact the contrast between the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of the Malay world and the doctrines of Islam was significant, where on the one hand there were fundamentally hierarchical polities with rulers claiming spiritual prowness and a multitude of gods and on the other hand a religion that stressed equality before the one god (Milner, 2008, p.40). Despite this, Islam managed to complement and amalgamate with the systems in place. Scholars like John (1961, p.19) point out the Sufi characteristic of accepting non-Islamic elements provided they were not contradictory to the Quranic verses and also argue that only the Sufis were capable and learned enough to face their Hindu/ Buddhist counterparts and engage in dialogue to successfully present their religion’s superiority. As Crawfurd (1967, p.266) eloquently puts forth:

“In most Mahomedan institutions of the Javanese, we discover marks of Hinduism. The institutions of the latter have been rather modified and built upon rather than destroyed, and in viewing them, we cannot withhold the tribute of our applause to the discreet and artful conduct of the first Mahomedan teachers, whose temperate zeal is always marked by a politic and wise forbearance.”

One of the reasons for the changed nature of Malay Islam that offends its critics and also contributes to the multiplicity in Sufi thought across the different localities and even within a single locality, perhaps lies in the permissive nature of Sufism. Sufis search for “new truths” that can be subsumed into the corpus of the Quran’s doctrines and each Sufi order developed its own rituals and devotional forms designed to “achieve direct contact with God and thereby obtain sublime salvation”(Means, 2009, p.22). One such ‘new truth’ arising out of the combination of the Javanese doctrines and Islamic doctrines was put forth by the Wujudiyyah in the 17th century. They were exponents of the Ibn al-Arabi school primarily based in Aceh, set up by Hamzah Fansuri a prominent scholar who localised aspects of Middle Eastern Sufi thought and developed a new genre of poetry, Syair (Feener, 2011, p.472). They sought to know and understand the relationship between god, man and the world from the ‘new’ Malay Islamic perspective that stemmed from the idea of the oneness or unity of god and they drew upon works of reputed scholars such as the aforementioned al-Arabi from the Middle East (Moris, 2011, p.109). Their metaphysical teachings on Being and Reality were highly controversial (Moris, 2011, p.110; Leaman, 2006, p.91). As Means explains:

“Javanese mystic doctrines view the temporal world as “unreal” but behind this temporal world lies the eternal reality of God, which is immanent in all creation. For the Sufi, the assumption is that Allah is everywhere and is in everything; he is concealed, unreachable and without equal. When combined with the doctrine of nonduality, Javanese Sufis concluded that man and God share the same identity and “ there is no difference between the worshiper and the worshiped” because the divinity of both are subject and object.”

Such teachings were condemned as heretical and supporting pantheism by scholars like Al-Raniri, writing from Aceh from when he was Chief Judge (Riddell, 2001, p.116). He represented the Aydarusiyya Sufi order, which did not originate in the Malay world and his criticisms were laid out in the Hujjat al-siddiq li-daf al-zindiq (ibid, p.119). Although he had been in Aceh for seven years on the behest of Sultan Iskandar Thani, he was born and spent most of his studies in Gujerat and the Hadhramaut (ibid, p.117) and therefore the clash between the teachings of Malay scholarship and scholarship representing ‘original Islam’ is evident here. Subsequently Al-Raniri’s teachings were disputed by Sayf al Rijal, a Minangkabau who successfully condemned his extremism and in 1643, Al-Raniri returned to Gujerat (Reid, 2011, p.460).

Additionally Sufis were more concerned with their direct experience of God rather than the doctrines and legal requirements of Sharia (ibid, p.24), a quality which manifested to varying degrees across the Malay world and arguably permitted the varied, selective implementation of the tenets of Islam. Additionally, because Sufis venerated individuals who purported to have achieved direct contact with god, this also permitted select individuals to be awarded the de facto authority to transmit their own transmutations of Islamic doctrines. One of the cornerstones of Islamic learning is this principle of authority. It is in the practice of Muslims to follow the teachings and opinions of teachers whose wisdom and appeal to learnedness convince them of his authority. The religious teachers are associated with various schools of learning that guarantee the standard of his learning and his doctrine’s legitimacy (Johns, 1975, p.46). This gives rise to different opinions and judgements as seen in the above example. Although, given that this is a trait of all types of Islam irrespective of locality, it cannot entirely be credited with the specific rise of ‘Malay’ Islam but to variations in Islam across the globe.

The Sufi doctrine of the ‘Perfect Man’ who achieves ‘essential oneness with God and guides his followers down the path he has trodden’ resonates strongly with the Buddhist ideal of the Bodhisattva which was also a concept used by rulers to portray themselves as divine representatives (Milner, 2008, p.41). Islam perceives the ruler as God’s representative on earth and protector of the one true faith and therefore as a ‘Perfect Man’. Relics such as old coins are seen to carry epithets such as ‘Shadow of God’ (Milner, 2008, p.42) depicting how rulers used a cloak of divine perfection and authority to legitimise themselves.

In the second part of Lhavanya’s essay, she will build up on the landscape of Islam in Malay identity to examine the polemics of Islam as a tool of politics and its inextricable relationship with ‘adat’. Find out what she has to say (as well as her bibliography) here.


What Really Caused the Philippine Revolution?

The batteries are gradually becoming charged, and if the prudence of the government does not provide an outlet for the currents that are accumulating, someday the spark will be generated.

 – Jose Rizal, The Philippines a Century Hence

The Philippine Revolution which begun in 1896 saw the rise of the demands and grievances of the people of the Philippines against the Spanish colonial rulers of that time. In studying the causes of the revolution, early historians have tended to attribute the events of that period mainly to the despotism of the Spanish. Afra Alatas, a student of History at the National University of Singapore, compares two articles that address the causes of the Philippine Revolution. They are complementary in nature in the sense that one article discusses issues which the other fails to address. The first will be ‘The Cause of the Philippine Revolution’ by Vincente Pilapil, while the second will be ‘The Enlightenment and the Philippine Revolution’ by Jose Arcilla. While Pilapil addresses a broad range of causes that led to the revolution, Arcilla addresses the Enlightenment in particular, and how it had an impact on the nationalist leaders and Rizal in particular. In analysing these articles, she seeks to argue that while Pilapil successfully challenges early historiography on the causes of the revolution, he appears to overlook the true significance of the Spanish. Furthermore, he lacks analysis on the significance of the Enlightenment; a factor which Arcilla discusses and argues for its influence in the nationalist movement and hence the revolution. 

The Awakening 

A professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles, Pilapil’s specialties included the Spanish colonial empire. In the above-mentioned article, Pilapil challenges early American historiography which ascribed Filipino uprisings to the oppression by the Spanish simply by selectively referring to revolutionary propaganda leaflets which were obviously anti-Spanish.

On the contrary, he highlights in another article that there are various sources which allude to the fact that the Spanish rule had provided many benefits for the natives of the islands and that this has been acknowledged by most Philippine historians (Pilapil, 1961:129). Instead, Pilapil argues in ‘The Cause of the Philippine Revolution’ that the revolution was the result of the forces of nationalism and liberalism which interacted with the “political maturation and the national awakening of the Philippine people”. In discussing this national awakening, he explains that in the late nineteenth century, Filipinos began to see themselves as one people and began to acquire a sense of individuality (Pilapil, 1965:249-50). He attributes this to factors such as the break from the barangay system and the formation of a centralised government, as well as the spiritual message of Catholicism. More importantly, education contributed to the emergence of such ideas which were adopted by the educated Filipinos, or the ilustrados, who would emerge to play a central role in the revolution. He reminds us that most of the nationalist leaders involved in the uprisings were actually educated, enlightened men, who had inevitably become inspired by the alternative ideas to which they were exposed to in university.

The importance of these factors was fuelled by factors such as the penetration of the ideas of liberalism and nationalism which in turn complemented the education that Filipinos were receiving. An example would be the ideas of Enlightenment from France which became prevalent in the Spanish constitution by 1812. More specifically, Pilapil’s discussion of the Enlightenment centres on the entry of Enlightenment ideas into the Spanish Constitution which were introduced to the Philippines. Such an idea was the “democratic principle that sovereignty is essentially vested in the nation”(Pilapil, 1965:254). However, this constitution was later suppressed.

Enlightened Propaganda 

Jose Arcilla is a Jesuit priest as well as a history professor at the Ateneo de Manli University. His areas of expertise include Philippine history and the history of Jesuits in the Philippines. In his article, Arcilla’s discussion revolves around the possibility of an impact of the Enlightenment on nationalist ideas in the Philippines, and if so, how. Like Pilapil, Arcilla also states that the idea of a Filipino people and the belief in human equality and human rights gave people more courage to assert their demands. This notion of human rights was reinforced by Enlightenment ideas which were introduced to the Philippines by its first bishop, Fray Domingo de Salazar. According to him and his belief in the gospel, the natives had the right to govern themselves.

He continues to discuss how Jose Rizal, the foremost symbol of the nationalist movement, was inspired by Voltaire and was exposed to ideas of liberalism and rationalism while he was in Spain. Inspired by Voltaire, a French Enlightenment thinker, Rizal believed that the more Filipinos were provoked, the more they would retaliate. The question was how they should retaliate, or rather what type of reforms they should demand. As a result, Rizal “advocated a total moral regeneration of his countrymen, without which they did not deserve self-rule” and believed that the movement for reform should not be violent (Arcilla, 1991:369).

With a firm belief in rationalism and anti-clerical liberalism, he believed that the friars should not have a say in the education or government of the people. This contributed to the fight against the clergy and friars that had eventually turned into a nationalistic campaign, which Pilapil also discussed.

In contrast to Pilapil however, Arcilla concludes that one of the most important factors in contributing to the revolution was the suffering of the Philippine people under harsh Spanish rule.

An Analysis 

Both articles essentially discuss the factors that contributed to the uprising in the Philippines and eventually to the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution. While Pilapil discusses a broad range of factors, Arcilla’s discussion focuses on the influence of the Enlightenment on the ideas of the nationalist leaders. Pilapil’s emphasis is mainly that it was the political maturation and national awakening of the Filipino people that ultimately resulted in the revolution.

He believed that early historiographical work which attributed the revolution to the Filipino people’s reaction to Spanish tyranny would be inaccurate and instead explains how other factors had emerged and developed to influence the Filipino people. In his conclusion, he questions why the demands for reform only arose towards the end of the nineteenth century and remarks that “if the people were groaning under the yoke of Spanish tyranny, the question why the leaders for reform, instead of originally fighting for separation from such a despotic power, asked for the assimilation of the Philippine colony with the mother country, would remain unanswerable” (Pilapil, 1965:264). However, as much as Pilapil is correct to say that we should not be swayed by the propaganda material against the Spanish colonials, it is a weakness of his argument that he tends to overlook the problems of the Spanish government. Pilapil’s work itself should therefore be studied with this critical eye since he seems to downplay the significance of imperfect Spanish rule.

While Pilapil’s article looks at the causes of the revolution from a broader perspective, Arcilla on the other hand focuses on the role of the Enlightenment in contributing to the revolution and how it aided in the development of education and the assertion of the belief in human rights and equality.

Most importantly, he discusses the heavy influence that the Enlightenment had on Rizal. The influence of the Enlightenment on Rizal’s thought has also been discussed by writers such as Bonoan (Bonoan, 1991:53-97). The main difference between both discussions on the Enlightenment is that Pilapil’s minimal discussion on the Enlightenment is only on its impact on politics. He fails to draw a link between the Enlightenment and the development of other factors such as the rise of the ilustrado and a more critical Filipino people. Including a discussion on the wider influence of the Enlightenment would have contributed to a deeper understanding of the various factors that he discussed. On the other hand, Arcilla’s discussion on the Enlightenment provides for a deeper understanding of its impact on the nationalist uprising.


Studying any historical event requires one to read broadly and to expose oneself to various perspectives. Through an analysis of Pilapil’s and Arcilla’s articles, one becomes aware of the need to corroborate and to complement sources with one another, as well as to adopt a more critical attitude towards dominant narratives; in this case, Spanish tyranny. It is also important to look out for the background and biases of an author. In the case of Pilapil, it is important to be aware of his tendency to downplay the harshness of Spanish rule which a reader can observe in his other works. In the case of Arcilla, his position as a Jesuit priest and his specialty in the history of Jesuits in the Philippines is striking.

This is in view of the fact that the Jesuits in the Philippines had liberal leanings and that there was tension between the Jesuits and the traditionalists. He might therefore resonate with the experiences of the enlightened nationalists. In the ultimate analysis, studying the various factors that led to a particular event certainly contributes to a broad understanding of that event. However, a deeper understanding can be achieved through a more in depth study of those individual factors. To read both Pilapil and Arcilla together and in this nature would therefore be fruitful.


  1. Arcilla, Jose S., “The Enlightenment and the Philippine Revolution,” Philippine Studies 39, no.3 (1991): 358-373.
  2. Bonoan, Raul J., “The Enlightenment, Deism, and Rizal,” Philippine Studies 40, no.1 (October 1992): 53-67
  3. Pilapil, Vincente R., “Nineteenth Century Philippines and the Friar Problem,” The Americas 18, no.2 (October 1961): 127-148.
  4. Pilapil, Vincente R., “The Cause of the Philippine Revolution,” Pacific Historical Review 34, no. 3 (August 1965): 249-264.

Between Tradition and Revolution: Nationalism in Malaya and Indonesia

“National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self-determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action”, said Woodrow Wilson in 1918 (GWPDA, 1997). In the case of Malaya and Indonesia, this would become a normative impetus to how its native intellectuals propagated the principle of national self-determination to its own people. Due to this, the language of nationalism can be seen as a positive force because it helped articulate the anticolonial struggle of Malayans and Indonesians. However, a comparative analysis shows how differently these two nationalisms are based on its leadership and representation in mass politics. Netusha Naidu explores the withstanding tensions between the traditionalism of the ascending ruling class and revolutionary streak of left-leaning groups in formulating national identities reveal the inherent complexities of anticolonial nationalism.

Onn Jaafar and Sukarno: A tale of two leaders
Datuk Onn Jaafar’s profound legacy legitimized the traditionalism that would preserve the interests of Malay ruling class, shaping the dynamics in the Malayan political sphere. His call for a total boycott of Malayan Union and strategy for its effectiveness, strengthened the construction of conservative politics. When he visited the rulers a day before the ceremony and warned their attendance would result in them being “overthrown immediately by the people”, Onn managed to capitulate himself as a representative of the Malay people as he had “severed” the meaning of the royal institution from its colonial context and given them the possibility of serving for the imagination of a postcolonial future (Amoroso, 2014:161-162). He had even appropriated the symbolism of the Left, sanitizing its radicalism so much so, its subtleness was merely sufficient to impress the aspirations of the Malays for independence while still retaining the privileges of the Malay ruling elite. For instance, the merah-putih (red-white) flag which was a powerful reminder of revolutionary Indonesia which was domesticated by Onn and the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) (Amoroso, 2014:194). To reinforce this, Onn “spoke darkly of the upheavals” in Indonesia, negatively representing the violence that transpired (Amoroso, 2014:196).

In contrast, Sukarno was completely obsessed with unifying all anti-colonial forces in the Dutch East Indies. He invoked inclusivity with his ideas of social justice as well as Islamic values that resounded among the diverse ethnic groups in Indonesia. To Sukarno, nationalism was the “common denominator of all anti-imperialist, anti-Western elements”. Unlike Onn who resorted to reinforced loyalty as a prime characteristic of Malay political convictions, Sukarno premised his nationalist ideas in clear opposition to the Dutch imperialists, who were guilty of “turning Indonesia into an area for the exploitation of foreign capital” (Knight and Heazle, 2011:89-90). He constantly toured the Javanese hinterland, “consolidating the mass support that would subsequently maintain him in power for a generation” (Anderson, 1972:124). His constant emphasis on a national revolution and democratic institutions, combined with the Pancasila, shaped the Indonesian worldview based on nationalism, internationalism, unanimity, well-being and a belief in God. In Sukarno’s imagination, the sovereign state of Indonesia was framed in the Javanese concept of power-concentration which would allow him to be the symbolic figurehead of a national collective will, seeking a sense of equality (Kreuzer, 2006:49-50).

Onn’s idea of nationalism was rooted in the conception of the Malay race and its culture so that he could preserve the continuity of the Malay bureaucrats by rearticulating Malay leadership with “historical resonance” (Amoroso, 2014:191). Sukarno, on the other hand, was more committed to a revolutionary restructuring of Indonesian society from the shackles of colonial powers through his inclusive, socialistic ideals. Thus, it is interesting to note how nationalism may be interpreted based on the advancement of a leader’s class interests and ideological roots.

“Postwar politics was mass politics”
In Malaya, the Japanese occupation had disrupted British colonial rule, legitimized a national conception of Malay society and introduced means of social organisation and action to advance this conception. Inevitably, “postwar politics was mass politics” that was “no longer restricted by class” in formerly occupied Malaya (Amoroso, 2014:169-70). Nonetheless, it did not prohibit UMNO’s elitism to strategize with the streaks of ethnocentrism and racism to advance their popularity in mass politics. References to essentialist figures like ‘Si Ah Chong’ and ‘Si Ramasamy’ in printed press “helped make the PKMM’s [Parti Kesatuan Melayu Muda] sporadic efforts at interethnic alliance a priori suspect endeavours”. Intriguingly, proponents of UMNO and political conservatism as expressed by Malay oral tradition, gave success to the transformation of a so-called progressive traditionalism and with the support of the British Military Administration (BMA), they garnered much public appeal (Amoroso, 2014:183). However, it could not be denied that UMNO faced stiff competition from the left-leaning PKMM and the its best bet to cripple their influence was a “mopping-up operation” during the Malayan Emergency which resulted in the crackdown on such movements to counter the communist insurgency (Kua, 2007:13).

Meanwhile in Indonesia, the Japanese political style presented the youth of Java a new mode of political life and action as it revived a certain collective memory of the precolonial past and evoked traditional resonances of a spiritual nature (Anderson, 1972: 32-33). The authority of the nation’s traditional ruling class, pangrèh pradja, was gravely undermined by repressive occupation policy. It was a “sophisticated servant of any well integrated, militarily powerful government but no substitute for one” (Anderson, 1972:108). Instead of conservatism, Indonesia witnessed the emergence of socialist ideology to complement political nationalism of young Javanese students. This would led to Sukarno’s snatch at independence upon Japanese surrender that can be perceived as necessary to prevent the restoration of colonial rule (Liow, 2005:60). As Anthony Reid noted, the fate of the Malay sultans in Eastern Sumatra would not be as fortunate as those in Malaya. Their strong association with Dutch colonialism fell into the zeal of a bloody revolution (Liow, 2005:82). The revolution in September 1945 destroyed Indonesia’s traditional feudal society by exterminating suspected collaborators with the Dutch colonial masters (Liow, 2005:60).

Yet, it would seem apt to ask – why was there a violent revolution overthrowing the Malay ruling class in Indonesia but not in Malaya? The answer could lie in the fact that their colonial experiences were very different. It would seem that Dutch colonialism had proven to be more excessive, brutal and combined with the mobilization of Japanese support, Indonesian revolutionaries had more opportunity to develop civic nationalism. Although similar in Malaya, the hegemonic political discourse and knowledge dissemination of the colonial sympathizing class left little room for dissent and whatever remnants of the Left would be crushed by state apparatuses devised by the BMA.

In instilling nationalistic sentiments in the hearts of people, the fate of the colonial organization of society would be a crucial determinant of how national leaders such as Datuk Onn Jaafar in Malaya and Sukarno in Indonesia conveyed the anticolonial struggle to their own people. Japanese wartime occupation during World War 2 was a defining moment in the modern history of Malaya and Indonesia. It had activated massive politicization of Malays and Indonesians, resulting in a tremendous discourse of nationalism that large groups of people could partake in. However, the path taken by the movements became rather distinct over time and eventually, bore lesser and lesser resemblance to each other as they move towards national self-determination. Hence, this suggests anticolonial nationalism, as a positive force it may be, embodies contingency in its outcome as these nations struggle to reconcile between traditionalism and revolutionary aspirations.

1. Anderson, B. R. O’G. (1972). Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance, 1944-1946. London: Cornell University Press.
2. Amoroso, D. J. (2014). Traditionalism and the Ascendancy of the Malay Ruling Class in Colonial Malaya. Petaling Jaya and Singapore City: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRD) and NUS Press Singapore.
3. GWPDA (1997). 11 February, 1918: President Wilson’s Address to Congress, Analyzing German and Austrian Peace Utterances (12/07/1997) -, date accessed 17/12/2016.
4. Knight, N. and Heazle, M. (2011). Understanding Australia’s Neighbours: An Introduction to East and Southeast Asia, 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press.
5. Kreuzer, P. (2006). Violent civic nationalism versus civil ethnic nationalism: Contrasting Indonesia and Malay(si)a. National Identities, 8(1):41-59.
6. Kua, K.S. (2007). May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. Petaling Jaya: Suaram Komunikasi.
7. Liow, J. C. (2005). The Politics of Indonesia-Malaysia Relations: One kin, two nations. New York: Routledge.


Transcending the Nation: Pan-Islamism in the 19th Century

In modern times, a person is seen to have a sense of belonging and identity to their nation. However, the rise of globalisation is said to shape belonging and identity that transcends our geographical boundaries so much so, we are rendered the question of – can one profess such a belonging while remaining loyal to their country?  According to Netusha Naidu, Pan Islamism in the nineteenth century is a real example of such identity. The historical events surrounding Pan-Islamism display how Islam promoted a sense of belonging in a wider region while being the driving force of nationalism and socio-political empowerment. Up to this date, the legacy of Pan Islamism is echoed in the form of contemporary global politics. Netusha presents and analyses the case for Pan-Islamism by investigating its possible origins, the history of its mobilization for these struggles through the intellectual legacies of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and his successor, Muhammad Abduh, the left-leaning nationalist politics in Malaya-Indonesia and how the Adaletve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) domestic and foreign policy serves as memory of Pan-Islamic values in contemporary Turkish politics.

Origins of Pan-Islamism: A Brief History

While it has been difficult to locate the origin of the Greco-Arabic word “Pan-Islamism”, the motive behind it has been known as an effort to revive the spiritual dimension of Islam which calls for the camaraderie of Muslims across the world by educating themselves about their past history and “bringing into play the mighty force of the Pen”, as written by the late S. M. H. Kidwai, honorary secretary of the Pan-Islamic Society in London. Kidwai suggests Pan-Islamism as a collective initiative to promote the moral, intellectual and social advancement of Islam as a counter-hegemonic discourse against “the force of blood thirsty weapons of warfare and other modern instruments of destruction” (Kidwai, 1908:1-4). It is important to highlight that in this period of time, Western imperialism was strongly developing in most parts of the East. This fundamental fear for the Islamic world that sees itself unprepared to resist an era of Western modernization would be the driving force of the Pan-Islamic movement.

The Mobilization of Pan-Islamism: The Intellectual Legacies of al-Afghānī and Abduh

Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī  played a vital role in formulating Pan-Islamism as an ideology that advocates rationalism, inherently demanding the people of the East to persistently express a sense of self-determination. Historian Nikki R. Keddie regarded him more of a secularist and rationalist who employed religious rhetoric (Olomi, 2014:6).  However, this myopic view excludes his philosophical undertakings that mobilize principles in Islam, setting up for modernization and unification of the Islamic world as a formidable resistance in a time of immense power struggle with Western nations.

Al-Afghānī reinterpreted two major concepts that would contribute to Pan-Islamism: taqlid and watan. He perceived taqlid (blind submission) as the heart of the plague in Islamic practices. He suggests that the Islamic world would be able to draw inspiration from its rich history and intellectual tradition which prioritized reason, while acknowledging it cannot hope to merely re-enact a once glorious empire (Olomi, 2014:30).  In addition to that, he often referred to watan. Traditionally, it meant one’s birthplace, but he eventually re-imagines it as motherland – a feminine counterpart to the French secular state, la patrie (Olomi, 2014:43).  Evidently, this would serve as an alternative, indigenous model to the nation-state. As al-Afghānī and other reformists like Midhat Pasha in the Tanzimat era would pursue, the Ottoman sultan was established as a strong caliph to not only protect the religion, but all oppressed Muslims in as far as India and Indonesia (Mishra, 2012:103; Keddie, 1969: 26-27; Lee, 1942: 282-3). The recognition of a supreme caliph would signify as a compass for the Muslim brotherhood in their national ambitions while following the current of Islamic discourse that were in vogue. Thus, it facilitated a mutually supporting power-relation between nationalist ambitions and regional empowerment for the East.

This philosophy would be continued by one of his followers, Muhammad Abduh who became a pioneer for Islamic reform in Egypt. His main aspiration was to challenge the rigid structures of Islamic culture (Amir, Shuriye and Ismail, 2012:169).  Abduh set the precedent on “a reformulation of systematic theology and doctrine with a gradual reintroduction of historical criticism into the study of tradition” (Vatikiotis, 1957:148).  In other words, Abduh’s sense of reformism aimed to destabilize Islam’s own discursive structure to enable the entrance of progressive ideas, promoting self-strengthening of both the religion and the anticolonial struggle. This would become highly relevant to the rest of the Islamic world as we will see in former Malaya.

The push for Islamic reformism had become widely accepted, aiding the construction of an imagined sovereignty among Muslims with a shared aspiration of self-determination. Pan-Islamism gave hopes of constructing a modern polity that would sufficiently compete with the Western imperialists (Olomi, 2014:44). It could not be that the “proto-nationalist” and anti-imperialist features that largely kept these ideas relevant (Keddie, 1969:26). Rather, it was the sense of permanence and universality in the appreciation of intellectual reasoning, drawing inspiration from Islamic culture that showcased an inherent spirit of collective effort and solidarity beyond a national agenda.

Islamic Socialism and the Quest of “Melayu Raya”

On the other hand, Islam in British Malaya was deliberately declining in influence, in spite of being a central element of the Malay identity. The colonial government had relegated Islam and Malay cultural affairs as secondary concerns to the traditional sultans and ulama whom were complicit with the degeneration of Islam in Malay public life. By 1925, these restrictions would reduce the role of Islam in Malay identity and governance to mere symbols and ceremony (Noor, 2014: 19-20). However, it was this very dismissal of Islam in Malay public life that would invent its own reactivation in politics.

Pan-Islamic revivalism would be seen more clearly when the Malayan-Islamic reform movement Kaum Muda’s left leaning thinker, Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy led the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in 1956. Influenced by Kaum Muda‘s philosophy, Burhanuddin embarked on refining his own take of Islamic thought and was celebrated for it, transforming PAS into a “full-fledged Islamist-nationalist anti-colonial party”. He was one of the only leaders of that time to speak of “Islamic socialism” which was highly influenced by Sukarno’s NASAKOM coalition (nationalism-Islamism-socialism) (Noor, 2014:47 and Noor, 2009:200). Furthermore, he lauded Sukarno’s grand project of a united Melayu-Raya, encompassing of modern day Malaysia and Indonesia.

In this instance, “Islamic socialism” and Melayu-Raya would display how the representation of Islam in Malay society was salvaged by political action.  Islam, from being deemed the cause of backwardness had now become the path to salvation (Noor, 2014:24). The colonial experience of domination and servitude among Muslim subjects formed a universal, socio-cultural bond amongst them due to its equalised nature. It was upon this basis that Burhanuddin could merge Islam with socialism, permitting values propagated by Pan Islamism to be legitimized (Noor, 2014:50-51).

The Melayu-Raya project signified the plan for Islam to be source of reunion for the Malay diaspora which has been divided by colonial powers into rigid borders. His vision of an Islamic state was “modern and dynamic” and he viewed this struggle as that of a Muslim patriot (Noor, 2009:208-9). By basing the national liberation movement on the “high principles of Islamism”, this Pan-Islamic Malay bloc could have regained a sense of identity and actualization to reclaim Malay political participation (Noor, 2014:51-52).

Pan-Islamism’s history of reform and modernism provided a language for the radical left to articulate and convey their aspirations for the broader Malay-Muslim world. By attempting to explain the dilemma of Malayan society in terms of class struggle and Islamic reform, PAS under Burhanuddin’s leadership had gained strength and resilience to contest the neocolonial nature of the Alliance in the late 1950s. In other words, it was the legacy of Pan-Islamism that inspired the politicization of Islam, giving the Malay non-elites an opportunity to be socially and politically empowered to provide alternative, inclusive discourses in addressing the plight of the Malay community and at the same time, promoting a larger cultural and political entity reminiscent of pre-colonial times.

Pan-Islamism in 20th century Kemalism: The case of the AKP

When the young Ottoman Turks led by Mustafa Kemal abolished the Islamic caliphate and renounced their leadership of the ummah, the Ottoman Empire and its inhabitants were shocked into becoming part of a modern nation-state. Kemalism and its assertive secularism had replaced the Islamic kingdom as the new political order of Turkey. To Kemal, this was necessary as the caliphate was “an anachronism in a world of nation-states” (Sayyid, 1997:59). This episode is highly significant for the history of Pan-Islamism as its abolishment had completely disrupted the caliphate as the centre of the Muslim political life and the relationship of Islam to the State authority (Sayyid, 1997: 63).

By removing Islam from the centre of constructing Turkey’s socio-political order, Kemalism had “politicized it: unsettling it and disseminating it into general culture, where it became available for re-inscription”. The resurgence of Islamism found itself being articulated as a counter-hegemonic discourse to Kemalism due to the fact that the social order of Muslim societies had been so destabilized that Islam was needed to return it to equilibrium (Sayyid, 1997:73). This process would manifest itself in the rise of the AKP in its political agenda and foreign policy that contradicts and problematizes Turkish secularism.

For example, Ahmet Davutoğlu, former leader of the AKP was the first scholar to establish an Islamist foreign policy for Turkey. “You cannot build a future based on these states, which are at enmity with each other due to nationalism. We shall break the mould shaped for us by Sykes-Picot.”, he said in hopes of achieving Islamic unity with his doctrine of ‘stratejik derinlik’ (strategic depth).  He suggested that Turkey should adopt an “expansionist, Pan-Islamist stance” based on Western imperial geopolitical theories so that it could spearhead political transformation in the region (Ozkan, 2014:120-121). However, this was met with much dismay, given that his strategy was more inclined towards the likes of Lebensraum than the defensive front of the Ottoman Empire (Ozkan, 2014:126). It contradicted the idea of Pan-Islamism as a benign force that united the ummah.

The AKP described itself as ‘conservative democratic’ party and refrained from using the term ‘Muslim democrat’, as it was cautious of being banned for anti-secular activities like its predecessor, the Refah Partisi (RP) (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:20).  The party became known for “its sensitivity to the religiously inspired conservative demands” of its voters such as on issues like the banning of the headscarf and improving the status of religious schools (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:70-71) as well as for appreciating the ‘richness’ of cultural differences besides Turkish (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:76).

The rise in popularity of Islamist parties has been attributed to the “culturally homogenizing effects of globalisation” but beyond this, it would seem that the AKP’s influence is drawn from the vacuum of Islamic narratives left by Kemalism (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:20). As Turkey’s pre-modern political history is deeply intertwined with the progressiveness of Pan-Islamism, the political discourse of Islamism itself, takes on the availability of the religion to undermine the Kemalist ancien regime (Sayyid, 1997:76-77). This sporadic, uneven nature of Islamic discourse reflects on the power struggle between the modern nation-state and a not-too-distant caliphate past in contesting and negotiating the political identity of the Turkish people. Hence, these incidents serve as a testament that the sentiments of Pan-Islamism are a dominant memory in contemporary Turkish politics.


As we have seen, a similar pattern and characteristics of the emergence of Islamic discourse in these nations can be observed. Pan-Islamism was first mobilized as a political ideology by Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muhammad Abduh, transforming Islam from the reason of backwardness of the East, into a source of inspiration for the anticolonial struggle in the nineteenth century. By locating the centrality of the ummah, the common colonial experience of Muslim societies would become a universally binding force that simultaneously invoked solidarity that transcended geographical boundaries, and nationalistic self-determination against the widespread influence of Western imperialism. As seen in the reactions of Muslim societies in Malaya and Turkey, the legacy of Pan-Islamism had given birth to social, political and cultural empowerment that would provide a religious framework for universal human rights – allowing a formidable resistance to articulate its aspirations to the masses effectively.

Hence, we return to the question posed in the beginning of the essay: can one profess such a belonging while remaining loyal to their country? It is indeed so. As Pan-Islamism showcases, a strong streak of nationalism seems to blend with this ideology that has spread across a wide region. It is certain that this pattern in historical events reveal Islam functions as a master signifier. This is because it holds a community, the ummah, together for as long as the members of ummah believe in it. The attempt of proponents of Pan-Islamism to transform Islam “from a nodal point in a variety of discourses” are a testament to how religious political identity can co-exist with an individual’s sense of belonging and identity to the nation (Sayyid, 1997:46).


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